What’s Behind Senate Republicans’ Hesitation About Same-Sex Marriage?

It is hard to think of an issue on which public opinion in the United States has changed so completely and rapidly as that on same-sex marriage.

When Gallup began tracking the issue in 1996, support was around 27%, with 68% opposed. In May, however, 71% supported same-sex marriage with just 28% opposed (1% had no opinion).

It is, in other words, a complete reversal of public opinion in a single generation. Meanwhile, opinion on abortion, another right that challenges how people perceive sex, religion, gender and gender roles, has barely budged. Or at least that was true before the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in the recent Dobbs v. Jackson.

“The rapid adoption of these rights is truly unprecedented,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. But while nearly every group of Americans — regardless of age, race, ethnicity, and party identity — now supports the right of same-sex couples to marry, there is one group that does not. doesn’t: white evangelicals, especially those who go to church weekly.

Support for same-sex marriage has grown over the years among white evangelicals, but a majority remains opposed. More recent trends suggest that support among this group has stalled — and may even be reversing — which is important at a time when Congress is considering codifying same-sex marriage into law.

A federal same-sex marriage bill passed the House last month and is supported by all Democrats in Congress. Forty-seven Republicans voted for the bill in the House and so far five Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin – said they support him. ; eight GOP senators are non-firms; and the other 37 didn’t say one way or another. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he wanted to introduce the bill, but last week Collins told reporters that Schumer and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s surprise deal to to include climate change legislation in the Democrats’ reconciliation bill could now be doomed. bipartisan efforts around same-sex marriage.

But there’s a much simpler reason why Republicans might ultimately decide not to accept the bill: It goes against what many white evangelicals want, and white evangelicals remain an important and influential party. of the Republican Party.

Consider that evangelical institutions are already urging Republicans not to vote for the bill. On July 26, 83 religious and right-wing groups sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stating that this act “is an attack on millions of Americans, especially believers, who believe marriage is between a man and a woman and that there are legitimate distinctions between men and women regarding the formation of the family which should be recognized by law”.

This argument, that recognizing the rights of others is an infringement on one’s own religious freedom, is well known, especially since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. Andrew Lewis, professor of political science science at the University of Cincinnati, said that after the verdict in Obergefell v. Hodges, opponents of same-sex marriage lost the argument on whether same-sex marriage should be legal and moved the discussion. “It’s less about the substance of marriage equality and more about what they see as the harm to dissenting opinions,” Lewis said.

The vast majority of white evangelicals, 60%, believe someone should be able to refuse to serve a same-sex couple if it goes against that person’s religion, according to PRRI’s latest annual Atlas of American Values, of 2021, which surveys more than 20,000 respondents in total. And that share is a little higher, 68%, for white evangelicals who attend church regularly. Most Americans disagree – 66% in this PRRI survey said someone should not be able to refuse service on religious grounds. But that’s less than the 79% who say they support laws preventing discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, suggesting some tension between support for anti-discrimination laws and arguments for religious freedom.

This is why evangelical criticism of same-sex marriage is now often presented as an attack on their religious freedoms. It is a more acceptable argument, Lewis told me, than to say that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

In fact, religious liberty issues are fueling decisions by some companies to refuse to serve same-sex couples and have led to numerous court cases challenging anti-discrimination laws, including one the Supreme Court plans to take up in next term. . New efforts to limit the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, like Florida’s Parental Rights Act that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, also fall under this broader umbrella of religious liberty — even whether the coalition pushing them is broader than evangelicals.

Florida law prohibits teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade in public schools, based on the idea that such education is the job of parents, and gives parents the right to sue districts they believe are breaking the law. At least 13 other states are considering similar laws. Laws targeting transgender people are also taking hold in many of the same states, which are largely those with the highest number of people opposed to same-sex marriage.

These laws mobilize white evangelical Christians and help explain the reluctance of some Republican senators to board. “They’re the most important part of the Republican Party,” Lewis said. “They’re bringing in new candidates, they’re getting people to vote, their issues are at the center of the Republican nomination fights.”

In the PRRI Atlas, only 35% of white evangelical Protestants now support the right of same-sex couples to marry. It’s also down from the previous year’s survey, conducted in 2020, when 43% said they support same-sex marriage. “My hunch is that it’s in response to this kind of heightened political atmosphere to have LGBT rights issues in the news,” said Deckman of PRRI.

Despite this, the vast majority of Americans still support same-sex marriage, and one of the reasons for this support cited by almost everyone I spoke to is that LGBTQ+ Americans had already struggled with discrimination for decades. that preceded the fight against the same sex. wedding. As states began to allow same-sex couples to marry, beginning with Massachusetts in 2003 and ending with the Obergefell decision, couples simply became more visible, settling into marriages, buying homes and having children in communities across the country.

“Our opponents have said, if we have same-sex marriage, all these horrible parades will happen,” said David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy and lobbying organization. “And those horrible parades never happened.”

Now, however, laws banning books from school libraries and banning LGBTQ+ education could reduce the kind of visibility and normalization that led to a surge in support for same-sex marriage in the first place. Jennifer Pizer, acting legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a group that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, told me that because many of these laws seek to censor LGTBQ+ people, the conversations that allowed LGTBQ+ people to show that they are not a threat are now more easily stopped. “Efforts to smear us are misguided and truly hurtful and should have no place in our society,” Pizer said.

Support for same-sex marriage also seemed to be a popular and well-established change in American society, until Judge Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case that the court “should reconsider all substantive precedents in due process of this Court, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Oberfelfell. This sounded a wake-up call to the estimated 1 million same-sex married couples in the country that overturning popular precedent no longer seems impossible given that the court comes to do so when he knocked down Roe.

It’s unclear where this fight will go next, but Stacy told me the Human Rights Campaign thinks it could lead to some state legislatures trying to challenge the decision. “Maybe indirectly, maybe more around religious exemptions, maybe allowing clerks to deny licenses,” he said. After all, groups that opposed abortion rights spent years changing state laws to challenge Roe v. Wade, shaking it up so that even before it was overturned, abortion wasn’t always an easily accessible right. Opponents of same-sex marriage could follow the same playbook.

About Hector Hedgepeth

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